Help! Overwhelming success is ruining my legacy!
Or at least it might, had I any actual success to speak of. As of right now, I have to say my legacy is looking fairly safe.
But the other day, as I was perusing the all-powerful culture sections of the broadsheets, a thought suddenly struck me. Are successful authors derided without merit? Why are they hated so much?
Envy, of course. But is it something else? Is there a hipster tendency in all of us?
We’re led to believe that good literature must be important, and no literature can be important if it’s popular on a mass scale. In deriding popular literature, it helps if there are deficiencies in the writing to poke fun at (yes you, E.L. James) or if it’s considered too niche to count, regardless of cross genre appeal (RIP Terry Prachett).
But in general, achieving the status of bestseller before winning any literary prizes is enough to keep successful authors away from the inferno of critical acclamation forever.
There are many great writers whose legacy is dubious, in that they might be declared culturally significant only about twenty-five years after they die, if they’re lucky. So what are they doing wrong?
The 7 Deadly Sins Of Successful Authors
1. Writing too many books
The only thing worse than selling too many books, is writing too many. Stephen King. Jodi Picoult. John Grisham. Anne Rice. Ken Follett. J.K. Rowling. Judy Blume. All successful. None revered. In some cases, an author’s greatest sin is prolificacy. Apparently, you’re not allowed to write too many great books. And even worse, is if you write some great works, but bridge them with books that are not quite as good as the great ones. That wipes out your whole canon. Much better to write/publish only 1 truly great book, than 10 merely popular ones.
2. Being too well-known/popular
“To hell with his sparkling prose and vivid, gripping plotlines. Once I saw that woman reading his book on the bus wearing a Penney’s tracksuit, I says to myself, it’s all ruined, says I. The seething, unthinking underbelly of society has soiled it with its grotty fingers. Once they start talking about it in their pyjamas, it’s cultural death.”
3. Making it look too easy
Many of our literary greats take aons to painfully churn out heavy tomes of weighty wordiness. And it looks it. Sometimes it can seem as though the author wrote the book in their own blood, etched upon paper made of skin and bone, bound with the tears of a thousand desperate childhoods. Books that take forever to write can often take forever to read, too. Conversely, some best-selling authors can make it look like they dictated their book one rainy Wednesday afternoon whilst reclining on a day bed, à la Dame Barbara Cartland. It doesn’t mean they did. It might just mean they’re bloody good at what they do.
4. Earning too much money
Nothing will kill literary approbation quicker than making money from your books. Everybody knows that each thousand an author earns knocks 1 point off their IQ, and reduces the probability of their ever being mentioned in a college course by 2.654%. Millionaire authors are in fact assigned helpers to aid them with putting on socks, and cutting up their food.
5. Drawing characters too well
Take Maeve Binchy or Marian Keyes, dismissed as ‘women’s fiction’ (on a good day) or ‘chick-lit’ (on a day as bitter as lemon getting dumped on his birthday). But for many, their chronicling of the human condition is just as important as that of Hilary Mantel or Don De Lillo, and often far more astute. People don’t realise how difficult it is to write something which strikes chords in the hearts of so many people, without constantly submitting to cliché. There are few clichés in Keyes’ books she didn’t invent herself, but she often commits the cardinal sin of writing recognisable characters. And don’t even get me started on Binchy.
6. Being too funny/shocking/sad/etc
Obviously, any book which elicits a strong response from a large number of people is too proletarian to be permissable in polite society. Books which make women cry are the worst offenders, taking them away from their own problems to cry over somebody else’s – disgraceful! A truly great work of art must keep its distance. For instance, I’ve read literary prizewinners which are supposed to be funny, and never laughed once. The closest I got was thinking ‘Oh, yes. I can see that he is technically making a joke here. Very good. Yes.’ But really funny stuff that makes people laugh out loud? Terry Pratchett, Douglas Adams, Tom Sharpe, your one behind Bridget Jones? Nah. Not good enough.*
*One exception here is Roddy Doyle, who is funny, successful and a literary deity. To be fair, he could disprove almost all my arguments here, so we just won’t talk about him. ‘Kay?
7. Adapting too easily to the screen
Characters and a story that take to the screen like a cat to fame on YouTube? Just not good enough. Exciting battles, set pieces, denouements? Pathetic potboilers. No work of art can be considered important unless it involves a very large dollop of undramatisable internal struggle and pontification. For example, Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice could have been murdered but for the fact that Luchino Visconti’s film adaptation was happily devoid of anything happening at all, and therefore considered to be the book’s equal in cultural importance.
Over to you. Are there authors you believe would be cultural royalty, if only they weren’t so bloody successful?